Use technology responsibly, urges cyber-safety expert

Dustin Hogan of an organization called Safer Schools Together provides tips to student leaders at a day-long workshop on cyber safety in Martensville on Wednesday, October 3

Today’s average smartphone contains more powerful computer technology than NASA scientists had available to them when they sent the first man to the moon fifty years ago.

But all that power is a double-edged sword, according to Dustin Hogan, an expert on cyber-safety with a BC-based organization called Safer Schools Together.

“Technology is a tool, but it’s also a weapon,” said Hogan. “We live in a digital era where technology is moving forward exponentially every day. For young people, especially, who are growing up in a world surrounded by these gadgets, it’s so important to help them be safe online, and guide them to become responsible digital citizens.

“Being responsible means posting content online that is kind and positive, rather than hurtful.

“Building a positive digital footprint is also important in the long run, because the reality is that employers, colleges and universities are looking at resumes almost as an afterthought; they’re going online first and checking out what these kids are doing on their social media profiles.

“The information kids post now could come back to bite them in the future.”

Hogan led a series of workshops on cyber-safety at Martensville High School (MHS) on Tuesday evening, October 2, and Wednesday, October 3 for Prairie Spirit School Division (PSSD) staff, parents and students.

The focus for the October 3 workshop at the MHS theatre was on helping student leaders prepare 30-minute presentations on the topic for their fellow students in their home schools.

“It’s a peer-to-peer approach,” said Hogan in an interview at MHS following the workshop. “If an adult comes into their classroom to talk to them about this, they might just tune out. But if an older student that they look up to and admire is telling them this information, they’re more likely to pay attention.

“It just means more to them if they get it from someone close to their own age.”

About 40 Grade 8, 9 and 10 students from MHS, Lake Vista School, Perdue, Warman Community Middle School, Warman High School, Delisle Composite School and Rosthern High School participated in the October 3 workshop.

Getting a handle on the technology packed into the average smartphone is the first step in taking control over the phone, rather than having the phone and its apps control you, said Hogan.

“It starts with the settings,” he said. “Something as simple as taking a photo; we see the image on the screen, but there’s more to it than that. Every photo also contains something called ‘metadata’, which tells you the aperture and shutter speed, but it can also tell you the exact location, right down to latitude and longitude, and the time of day the photo was taken.

“This is the information  the phone is automatically attaching to the image, and so when you share the photo, other people can obtain that background data.”

But, said Hogan, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Dustin Hogan of BC-based Safer Schools Together

“You can go into the settings on your phone and turn off the location services for that particular app,” he said. “Location services is useful on apps like Google Maps, where you want the app provider to know where you are, but you don’t need it to be turned on in your camera all the time.

“If that personal information gets into the wrong hands, it can have serious consequences.”

Hogan used the example of a person sharing a vacation photo on social media. A ‘facebook friend’ then went to that person’s home and stole their valuables.

“If you don’t know someone in person, you shouldn’t have them as a ‘friend’ on your social media network,” said Hogan.

He said that rule of thumb is also useful when it comes to online postings.

“A hurtful comment or posting online hurts just as much as a hurtful comment made to a person’s face or behind his or her back,” said Hogan.

Safer Schools Together was initiated by Theresa Campbell, who worked in the Surrey School District for several years. The organization conducts educational workshops across Canada and the United States on cyber-safety, digital threat assessments, and being a responsible digital citizen; as well as partnering with school divisions, social services and law enforcement agencies on violent threat risk assessments.

“We have a team of specialists on violent risk assessment who work with school divisions who contact us,” said Hogan. “My colleagues comb what is called ‘open source’ social media looking for worrisome behaviour that is happening in specific school districts.

“We do a kind of ‘social media forensics’ and if we find worrisome behaviour we can then present it to the school administrations.

“It’s a way of being proactive. A lot of incidents have been stopped or prevented because of information that was floating around on the Internet that parents and teachers may not be aware of, even though the kids know about it. Our team finds it and sends it to the school and hopefully they intervene in a positive way.”